Little Women are Bigger Than Ever

Culture Watch
tags: reviews, movies, Little Women

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.


The Civil War was a difficult time for all American families, North and South. It was especially tough for the March family, of Concord, Massachusetts. A mom and four daughters ran the household and worked at various full and part-time jobs while their father was in the Union army. Their story was recorded as fiction in the autobiographical work Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott (it was her family). It was the story of Jo March, the eldest sister, a writer, and her professional and emotional ups and downs and the emotional struggles of her family. It is one of the country’s most beloved novels.


I believe I am the only living American who has never read the novel or seen any of the many movie adaptations of it. There was an elderly man who lived in the foothills of the Rockies who never read the book either, but I think he has passed  away.


So when I walked into my packed neighborhood theater to see the film (passing the 334 million people on line to see the latest Star Wars), I did not know what to expect. It seemed from the pre-show chatter that everyone in the theater had read the book at least four times.


The movie unfolded, very slowly. The first third of the film, that opened nationwide last weekend, is very disjointed. I was not sure what woman was in love with what boy, where the dad was, who was getting sick, what neighbors were friends and what Meryl Streep was doing playing some aunt with a great deal of money. . I was confused and just did not know why the book and previous movies had become, well, immortal.


Then, by the middle of the movie, the plot started to develop and the characters, the sisters, bloomed. From that moment on, they had me. I was enthralled with the story and the sisters. I felt like yelling at the screen to tell the sisters to do something about a situation because I so desperately wanted to help them.   The new Little Women,marvelously directed by Greta Gerwig, is a tremendous movie, an all engulfing, emotional roller coaster that not only displays the March family, with its triumphs and tragedies, but the lives of women in the middle of the nineteenth century and how they all fit into the story of the Civil War, that at the time of the story was ripping the nation apart.


Little Women, a Sony PIctures film, succeeds on several levels.  First and foremost, it is a loving look at several very admirable young women and the  problems they have to grapple with at that time. They fight with each other, fret with each other and most of all love each other. They march down the street together, sit in the theater together, shiver in the New England cold together and, in the end, in several ways, triumph together.


Director Gerwig, who also wrote the screenplay, has  made this a very modern look at life in the 1860s. There are several well-crafted dialogues from the girls about how unfair a woman’s lot was in that era – unable to do just about anything because of gender discrimination. Why does their goal in life have to be finding a husband and not finding a career? Why do men look at them as cooks and servants and not as emotional partners?  Why is the best thing a woman could do was bear several children and not have several jobs? That dialogue is clear and reflects the plight  of women today, too. Gerwig’s screenplay is as much 2019 in tone concerning women’s roles in the world as Alcott’s story was about them in the middle of the 19thcentury. The screening I attended was filled with mostly women; men should see this movie too to learn something.


My complaint about the story and the movie is that while set during the Civil War and about a soldiers’ family back home, there is not much about the war. There is a scene where Concord residents  provide blankets and food for coming home soldiers, several descriptions of losing loved ones, some worry over the Dad’s safety and, later, his sickness. Jo even cuts her hair for money to help get her dad get back home. The film should have offered more about the war. It should have been noted, too, that while life was hard on northern families, it was hard on southern families, too. For every March family in the Union, there was surely one in the Confederacy.


The roles of the women are clearly delineated.  Jo is the older sister who writes plays and novels but doesn’t get anywhere. She guides all the others, who find husbands, despite declarations that they don’t want to be just wives and moms. Mom has nothing but problems with the girls, always dispensing advice about life and love that are just as valuable today as then. She is their rock that the girls stand upon while dad is in the army.


In the end, life turns out reasonably well for the girls and for the Union, too. You learn a tremendous amount of history in the film – church, economics, writing, farming, Universities, modes of travel, weather, fashions and  Christmas breakfasts and dinners for rich and poor. Oh, the piano, too. It is a enchanting look at life in the mid 19th century and it is full of worry and travail, too, just as life is today.


Director Gerwig gets superb performances from her village of actors. The star of the story, writer Jo, is played with wonder and awe by Saoirse Ronan, who keeps all on their seats as she barrels through life. Other fine performances are by Emma Watson as Meg, Elilza Scanlen as Beth and Florence Pugh as Amy.  Laura Dern is America’s mom as their mother.  Bob Odenkirk, musket over the shoulder, is the dad and Meryl Streep is the very rich and very eccentric aunt. 


The film starts after the war with Jo trying to sell her work and then flashes back to the start of the war and the abandonment of the girls when dad marches off to war. The story is both Jo’s hard work as a writer and the life of the girls together with a few tragedies tossed in. The strength of it is the love of the girls for each other, even though, in anger,  they do awful things to each other.


These are big sisters for the little women of the story.

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